“Feel this. Feel how thin it is,” Petersen Automotive Museum Chairman Bruce Meyer said to me. He was pinching the door panel of a 1954 Mercedes-Benz W196, his thumb and index finger only separated by a slight, highly flammable sheet of magnesium. The car’s entire body weighs about 50 pounds. Meyer calls the W196, among other things, “a rockstar” and “a bomb waiting to explode.”
“This is one of the most important cars in the world. It’s probably a $100 million car,” he added, as I tentatively obeyed his instructions and caressed my fingers over the metal.
The W196 is a lynchpin in Meyer’s “Precious Metal” exhibit, a hand-picked collection of the 12 finest silver cars through history, showing now at The Petersen in L.A. The cars are art, to be certain, but they refreshingly break convention. They’ve been driven many miles. Some have been wrecked and rebuilt exactly to original specifications. And while it’s not encouraged, touching a McLaren F1 is less likely to get you tossed from the Petersen than placing your grubby fingerprints on a Matisse at MoMA.
“When you first start out in art, you look at pretty pictures, then all of a sudden you…get more esoteric” Meyer said. “What we have here are cars everyone can understand.”
The exhibit plays out like the working man’s art gallery, its pieces formed on factory lines, not studio lofts. Meyer first took his idea for a silver car exhibit to neighboring LACMA about a decade ago. The museum passed. “They just move too slow…They missed an opportunity,” Meyer said. And why the color bias? “Because every car looks great in silver,” Meyer said. “It’s a precious metal. It defines the car and really shows them at their best.”
While this automotive art might be approachable for anyone, walking around the exhibit with Meyer does bring a host of insider stories. Take, for example, his own 1957 Ferrari 625/250 Testa Rossa that sits in repose at the center of the room. Its previous owner was a “very prolific” drug dealer. “I got some stealthy brokers that were able to find it,” Meyer says. “It turned out that INTERPOL had seized the car in a drug-related operation. It sat in the Netherlands for 10 years.” Meyer won a sealed-bid auction for the iconic car, widely considered to be the winningest Ferrari ever. Before its stint in the museum, Meyer drove the Testa Rossa from Pebble Beach to L.A. via Highway 1.
The exhibit plays out like the working man’s art gallery, its pieces formed on factory lines, not studio lofts.
There’s the 1937 Horch 853 Sport Cabriolet, which features a continuous, 10-foot piece of chrome stretching down its side — the automaker built new tools specifically to make the part. Or the mammoth, supercharged 1936 Duesenberg Model SJN, which was one of the first American attempts at a supercar despite being about the weight of a present-day Cadillac Escalade. Or the achingly gorgeous, razor-sharp 1959 Chevrolet Corvette XP-87 Stingray Racer, a car on which GM head of design Ed Welburn still keeps close tabs (“When we brought it here, [Welburn] said ‘You’ve got my car!’” Meyer told me).
There are also rare modern cars on display, like the 1995 McLaren F1, which boasts a 243 mph top speed, and a 552-horsepower Bugatti EB110S. The museum plans to shuffle cars in and out, and James Bond’s 1964 Aston Martin DB5, complete with rotating license plate and oil-slick deployer, was gleaming during my first visit, but was whisked back to its owners by my second. The exhibit evolves according to Meyer’s taste. “These are all cars that I particularly admire and I thought would be compatible and tell a story,” he said as he surveyed the room. A third visit is in order soon, then.